Considering the circus that currently is the Republican Presidential race, I thought it worthwhile to repost this analysis of a famously odd moment from the previous campaign, way back in 2012.
Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the Republican National Convention in Florida has become the most talked-about part of that gathering, for better or worse. Eastwood’s apparently unscripted debate with an empty chair (standing in for President Obama) has overshadowed Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech and provided fodder for liberal and conservative pundits alike. It is – so far as I know – Eastwood’s first attempt at unscripted theater, and I thought I would look at it as a piece of performance art.
The key to trenchant satire is to keep the caricature close to home, take the target’s personality and quirks and amplify them just slightly. There is the famous story of how Richard Nixon slipped out of the White House one evening to speak to protesters. They assumed, from all the classic Nixonian mannerisms, that they were watching a Nixon impersonator, and cheered him as such.
Where Clint Eastwood fails is in creating such a spiteful, distorted “Fauxbama” that it bears no relation to the real one. Whatever he may be behind the scenes, President Obama is not known to tell opponents to shut up, or suggest they do anatomically impossible things to themselves. These actions have come from conservatives – pundit Bill O’Reilly and former Vice-President Dick Cheney, respectively. However, parodying an opponent by making him sound like your allies is…questionable. And going so far from President Obama’s personality makes the whole caricature fail. It can be easy to poke fun at a President – Bill Clinton wolfing down junk food and chatting up every woman he sees is not beyond the bounds of good taste – but in this case Eastwood’s caricature is mostly bile. Whoever is sitting in that chair, it’s not Barack Obama.
I don’t want you to think that political considerations alone provoked this review. I was lucky enough to see internet reviewer Kyle Kallgren (aka Oancitizen, on his show “Brows Held High”) review “W – the Movie,” (2009) a ludicrous and at times offensive piece of ultra-liberal “performance art” by Alfred Eaker. Fortunate in that a) Kallgren’s review is funny and a good piece of analysis, and b) fortunate in that I didn’t have to sit through the whole of Eaker’s bludgeoning attempts at satire. The Nazis in Hogan’s Heroes were portrayed with more wit and nuance!
Watch Kallgren’s review of ‘W – the Movie” here.
A good writer/actor/director knows that creating a character requires a certain amount of credibility. You must convince the audience to accept the character as real, at least to a certain extent. This even applies to cartoons. The only possible exception is broad comedy, where certain meta elements are allowed; Mel Brooks can be Mel Brooks regardless of the name of the character he is playing. Eastwood does not have the skill as a writer or an improvisational performer to pull off this sort of performance. He became, as many pundits have noted, an old man arguing with a chair – sort of an absurdist version ofHarvey. Only Eastwood’s reputation allowed him on stage that night with that material – Alfred Eaker would never make it. Good thing, too.
I have a limited tolerance for performance art. Too much of it is self-referential, confessional, and maudlin at the core. There are artists who can amuse or shock , but they are few. Marina Abramovic can challenge an audience without having to create a character; she is the character. Musician and performance artist Momus, in his “unreliable tour guide” performances can amuse by undermining the assumed credibility of his character. Eastwood’s performance was designed to appeal to the crowd, but in such a public venue that cannot be the sole impetus. Did he consider how this would look to the rest of the country? Did he consider anything beyond an apparent detestation of President Obama? A good scriptwriter could have helped him out. At his age, he might not get a second chance.